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First person: Lawn, lookalikes and politics

First person: Lawn, lookalikes and politics

Khadijah Shah follows a madcap, hectic routine any day, every day. There’s no other way that she can manage her thriving business for bridal wear, luxury pret and lawn at her label Elan alongside being the creative head at fledgling high-street label Sapphire. It’s a gargantuan balancing act that one would have considered impossible but miraculously, Khadijah’s been waltzing it so far. She does it with ‘élan’ — designer-clad, high-heeled, the socialite designer who enamored high society and then some, has proceeded to take on the country.

Her work desk sits in the midst of her studio, a melting pot where myriad lines are cooked up one after the other. Her design teams have carte blanche to flit to her whenever necessary and focus ricochets from the luxurious mass-centric realms of the upcoming designer lawn to the pretty but less formal unstitched variety at Sapphire; the quirky youthfulness of pret to the slightly more upscale ready-to-wear line; the sophisticated ethos of luxury pret to the regal opulence of the label’s bridals.

“I don’t take breaks while I am working, so switching from one collection to another is actually my break,” laughs Khadijah. “I enjoy my fast-paced working days. I am very nitpicky and each and every collection that emerges from Elan or Sapphire is conceptualised by me. My team just helps me execute the designs.”

Her modus operandi has worked so far. Just a year old, Sapphire has already become quite successful, even instigating a sale where women went raving mad clambering over each other. Videos of the mayhem quickly went viral on social media. Elan, meanwhile, continues to rule the roost with bridal orders galore, fashion week acclaim and a brand new outlet opening in Karachi this year.

With success come the pitfalls, though. What mars Khadijah’s workday regularly are images, filtering onto social media and magazines, with designers and high-street labels plagiarising Elan, Sapphire or both — and getting lauded for it.

“Why is everyone copying Elan?”

At last year’s PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week, where a crowd of Elan-lookalikes took to the catwalk, Khadijah opted to take the higher road. “My friends sent me images and joked about it and I chose to take it as a compliment and not say anything. But flattery can only go so far. These are not low-scale tailors sitting in Liberty, after all. These are people professing to be bona fide designers.

“At least five staff members within my atelier get offered jobs from other labels every day. It’s now become a running joke,” she says. “My business has grown and I can’t possibly manage my workload without assistants. I usually hire fresh graduates and train them from scratch. It’s not fair that other designers swoop in, poach my staff by offering them astronomical salaries, ask them to copy designs that I create with sheer hard work and then try to undermine my market by selling them at half the price that I charge.

“Designers change jobs all the time but they adopt the ethos of whichever label they are working for. There are currently two ex-designers from my team going around Lahore, copying my designs not just for newer brands but also for the so-called established ones.”

While pastel-coloured bridals are a staple at Elan, how can Khadijah claim to have the copyright? “I certainly don’t have exclusive rights over pastel colours but what if an entire collection is in the same colour palette as ours with all the detailings that define us; elaborate florals, nets, scallops, jewelled motifs, birdcages, et all? From the design to the photographers, models and effects used in my most recent shoot, it’s shocking how people follow my lead. Even high-street labels are looking too much like Sapphire. It takes things beyond mere ‘inspirations’ to absolute imitations.”

A quick look around the market — and down Instagram’s crowded domains — adds credibility to Khadijah’s grievances. Sapphire’s vivacious florals and scenic prints are now available nineteen to the dozen. And Instagram is littered with Elan-like bridals created by newbie designers who have just crawled out of the woodworks, as well as a few well-known ones.

Who, particularly, does she feel is to blame? “I won’t name the designers because I don’t want to give them more importance than is due to them,” she shrugs. “But I was shocked when at a recent exhibit, a very well-known designer brand, changed its ethnic signature to suddenly branch into absolutely Elan-like pastels. It’s puzzling, too, because designers can only strengthen their markets by developing their own individuality and so many of these brands are concentrating on simply earning short-term profits.

“I also think that even if fashion scribes don’t want to openly point fingers against copycats they can at least sideline their collections. Allowing them to continue and even giving them publicity diminishes their credibility and hampers creativity. Fashion, on the whole, suffers.”

In that vein, should the PFDC have allowed such unabashed rip-offs onto its catwalks, on the same platforms as Elan itself? “It can’t be easy for the fashion council to decide upon its designer lineup, supporting established names and also encouraging newer ones. Still, they could perhaps be more vigilant.”

Business … and the erstwhile LSAs

But while Khadijah may rant against plagiarism, only a few months ago she was under fire for similar accusations. Prints used in Sapphire were discovered to have been lifted off Pinterest and used without the owners’ permission. “I had observed the local high-street and noticed that almost every brand was copying designs from the Internet,” she professes. “Even then, I had only used the prints in Sapphire’s cotton ready-to-wear while the unstitched line has always been conceived from scratch. Nevertheless, it is a mistake that I won’t make again.”

Controversies and copycats aside, business is going strong. An Elan showcase at fashion week, whether in Karachi or Lahore, is attended by avid throngs of society’s higher echelons, many of whom quickly get up and leave once Khadijah takes a bow. Following up on this popularity, Elan’s flagship store in Karachi is opening soon and the infamous annual Elan lawn line is set to release come summer — heavily embroidered this time.

What prompted Khadijah to set up base in Karachi when she could have continued stocking at multi-labels — as she has in the past — and simply just managed the standalone Elan store in Lahore? “Clients have increasingly been flying in from Karachi to place orders for bridals and evening formals,” she explains. “The demand is certainly there and I thought that it was high time that the brand had a presence in Karachi. The store will stock some formals and ready-to-wear, and I will be flying in regularly for clients interested in customised orders.”

Despite her stellar career, does it irk her that she is yet to win a coveted Lux Style Award in genres that are quite her forte — prêt and particularly bridals and lawn? “I am glad that the LSAs provide a platform for fashion and I am nominated in various categories regularly,” she mulls. “But I do feel that the awards are a bit too skewed towards Karachi’s fashion fraternity. Having said that, awards are hardly a benchmark for success. The numbers speak for themselves.”

Fast-paced, highly charged, replete with fans and quite a few jealous naysayers, Khadijah’s career speeds on. “I think people feel threatened by me,” she jokes. “Which is why I get singled out for critique while all and sundry are left off the hook. It doesn’t matter. I think the greater the pressure, the fewer the awards, the more I grow.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 7th, 2016

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